Unity & Pluralism in Dharmic Traditions

By David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri, www.vedanet.com)

One of the two keynote talks given at the close of the International Conference on Dharma-Dhamma, Bhopal, India, Sept. 23, 2012, which was attended by several hundred scholars from throughout the world. It followed the groundbreaking ceremony for a new university for Buddhist and Indic Studies at Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh, India supported by the governments of Madhya Pradesh India, Sri Lanka and Bhutan.

Dharmic Traditions


Sanchi2I would first of all like to thank the government of Madhya Pradesh, the Mahabodhi Society, and the India Foundation for organizing this important conference, and more significantly, for helping to develop this new dharmic institution at Sanchi. May it flourish and be the precursor of many more institutions of a similar nature all over the world. A dharmic university and dharmic education is essential to peace and understanding for all humanity.

I am speaking before you as a traditional scholar of Dharmic teachings, particularly of Vedic and Yogic teachings, extending to Ayurvedic medicine and Vedic astrology. Though I was born and raised in the West, I have tried to follow traditional teachers and the views of traditional texts from India. I am happy that a place is given here for such traditional scholars, for whom dharmic teachings are not a mere object of academic study and research, but part of a daily life, sadhana and spiritual practice. For any dharmic education to be real, the spirit of dharma must remain alive in the minds and hearts of its teachers and students. They must study and practice dharma at a personal level as well as at an intellectual level.

India has nurtured a variety of spiritually based dharmic traditions over many centuries and many millennia, marking the unique contribution of its civilization to the world at large. These Dharmic traditions have lived together in peace and mutual respect, sharing a common Dharmic culture and a common aspiration to the highest truth. India-origin Dharmic traditions have been shared by the surrounding great countries of Asia and have become integrated with the native cultures of many Asian countries as well, which have much in common with them, like Chinese Taoism and Japanese Shinto. We could say that Dharma is the light of Asia and the common factor behind all its forms of spiritual aspiration.

The Rigveda, the oldest available of the dharmic texts from India, reflects the teachings of dozens of great sages or rishis, as part of one great spiritual family. It emphasizes a relation of friendship, kinship and equality between human beings and the devas, the spiritual forces of the universe, leading to the supreme truth. It honors all nature and asks all human beings to respect the whole of life.

The Upanishads, the cream of Vedic philosophy, consist of the inquiries, questionings and dialogues between various sages and yogis and an open discussion of their meditation based experiences. The Upanishads do not try to promote any person, belief or doctrine as final for everyone. They emphasize a greater Self-realization beyond speech and thought, name and form, but approached from a variety of angles.

The Buddhist tradition or Buddha Dharma is similarly foremost a tradition of inquiry and meditation. Buddhism teaches the individual how to perceive the nature of truth and reality through meditation, and does not rest content with any belief structures of the mind as final. The same freedom of thought and spiritual practice extends to all Buddhist traditions. Their emphasis is on enlightenment of the mind and service to all, not merely promoting one religious identity or another.

Dharmic Pluralism, Diversity and Questioning

This, what we could call, Dharmic pluralism, has created probably the most extensive and comprehensive set of spiritual philosophies in the world, which contain a diversity of great spiritual insights and deep understandings covering all aspects of life. There are many schools of Vedantic, Yogic, Buddhist and Jain thought, with various degrees of interrelationship. All these great Dharmic philosophies include studies of higher consciousness and universal awareness such as modern science is just beginning to suspect exists behind the time-space universe as a whole. Dharmic traditions reflect a spiritual science or way of knowledge more so than any mere faith or religious creed.

This Dharmic pluralism is not afraid of dialogue and debate. It encourages us to question everything, including to question the Dharmic teachings themselves, so that we can find out for ourselves what is the highest truth.  Dharmic teachings make truth more important than any belief, and the truth that we can directly perceive and experience more important than any merely conceptual truth. In Dharmic tradition reason is also honored and given a place, but aligned with meditation or inner perception, as a means of its articulation.  No irrational beliefs or unquestioned presumptions and preconceptions are required.

Dharma does not insist that we all simply verbally agree with each other, or that one point of view should be promoted as the same as or supreme for all people, in order to remove any potential problems that differences of views may create between people. Developing the proper mode of questioning is regarded in Dharmic traditions as more important than merely repeating any particular verbal answer or credo as correct. There are rigorous traditions of debate in all dharmic traditions including in Tibetan Buddhism and in Hindu Vedanta that continue to the present day.

We must recognize that each individual is different and the spiritual path or way of life that is appropriate for one person may not be appropriate for another. This is a fact of dharma at an individual level. There is not only a unity to life but also an infinity to its expressions, and one that transcends any fixed theology or philosophy. The karmas of living beings vary and must be understood, respected and adjusted for.

Different philosophies may appeal to different people, and what may seem logical to one person, may appear flawed or incomplete to another. The important thing is not to automatically promote one philosophy or another as correct for all, but to encourage deep thinking and the development of a higher intelligence in each individual, for which the exercise of dialogue and debate is essential. It is not the verbal form of what we know that is primary but our actual inner experience in our own minds and hearts.

Individually Based Spiritual Experience

Dharma emphasizes the importance of individually based spiritual experience through meditation over any outer dogmas, creeds, formulas or ideologies. Dharma is more a path of practice than of belief or an ideology. It emphasizes right living and right perception over theological correctness.

Dharma brings us to Svadharma, which is to know our own dharma, which also means not to try to impose our own dharma, however valuable it may be, upon others. Dharma is a way of self-knowledge that requires deep introspection to find the truth, which also means questioning ourselves, our preconceptions and our motivations.

Dharma reflects the universal principles and eternal laws of the greater universe of consciousness. Yet it also reflects the adaptation of these natural laws relative to the actual circumstances of each person, community, culture and country. Dharma has many levels that are interrelated and interdependent in the great web of life. Our individual dharma must also be seen in light of these additional aspects of dharma.

Svadharma is not simply a matter of each person doing what he or she would like to do at a personal level. It is not mere individualism or relativism. It means following our inmost dharma that connects us to the entire chain of life and the greater universe in which we live. It implies service and sacrifice, not simply personal fulfillment, pleasure or enjoyment. It is not hedonism or desire based individualism or consumerism.

While there are eternal principles of dharma, these are not rigid outer constructs. They require flexibility in their application. There are for example, universal principles as to how water moves, but this movement will vary according to the terrain on which it occurs. The unity of water produces an amazing diversity of landforms and ecosystems.

Yet the highest truth, as recognized by all dharmic traditions, is said to be beyond words, beyond the mind, and is more a matter of intimation than direct instruction. We can point to that higher truth, but cannot reduce it to a convenient set of rules that are the same for everyone. All teachings are but expedient methods to draw us to a deeper Self-realization or higher awareness. What is important is not to reduce the highest truth a name or form, but to help each individual approach its direct experience according to the way that is in harmony with their own dharma, nature and circumstances. This supreme dharma is often best expressed in silence.

Dharmic traditions allow for differences in name and form and are not afraid of them. They do not promote uniformity but allow for the natural diversity that is inherent in all life to have its proper expression. They embrace all life and culture and do not divide people into separate or competing identities.

Common Dharmic Values and Practices

Through having a pluralistic approach to truth, we must also recognize that Dharmic traditions share a similar foundation of ethical values and spiritual practices, regardless of any philosophical or doctrinal differences that they may have, which are most often generally minor. All dharmic traditions emphasize non-violence, truthfulness, non-possessiveness, compassion, and selfless service as principles of right action and right behavior. These principles of dharma form a universal ethics that can be adapted by everyone.

Dharmic traditions promote similar spiritual practices of ritual, mantra, and many forms of inquiry and meditation. These common values and practices bind all Dharmic traditions close together and override any philosophical or theological differences that may appear at the surface. It is these values and principles that constitute the essence of dharma, and the highest Dharmic philosophies are expressions of these as well.

Such common dharmic values and practices can perhaps be summarized as a respect for all life as sacred, and as an honoring of meditation to find the truth over mere belief in what truth is supposed to be. They reflect a common dharmic acceptance of the law of karma, that there is a specific ethical and spiritual consequence of all of our actions.

One could say that in the realm of Dharma the message of meditation is more important than any verbal message. The figure of the Yogi, Jina or Buddha in meditation has dominated Asian art and iconography, reflecting this fact.

Threats and Opportunities for Dharmic Traditions Today

Dharmic traditions have suffered and been marginalized in many parts of Asia throughout the colonial era, and also continuing into the post-colonial era, particularly in communist countries, which have sought actively to suppress them. They are only slowly undergoing a revival, and one that is still being opposed by many other forces, politically, economically and even religiously.

Dharmic traditions today face a great threat from exclusivistic belief systems for which belief is more important than any actual experience or mode of behavior. Simplistic beliefs can be easier to propagate, particularly in this era of the mass media and its stereotypes, than the truth of Dharma that cannot be reduced to a single formula to be given mechanically to all. Dharma is a way of life that must be learned with awareness, dedication and perseverance. Dharma is not a matter of a quick emotional conversion, but a reorientation of the consciousness through a higher knowledge and devotion.

Dharmic traditions today also face a great threat from the rampant consumerism that is spreading throughout the world, which undermines common dharmic values that emphasize simplicity and living close to nature. This dharmic culture of meditation can be very different than the media culture of the pursuit of sensation and the quick accumulation of consumer goods. Dharma transcends the daily news and reflects enduring rather than transient trends in human life. Dharmic based meditation requires that we can detach from the world of consumerism and the mass media.

In this regard, Dharmic traditions need to unite in their defense of dharma, not simply to protect their older traditions but also to sustain a deeper truth and spirituality in the world. This requires a spirit of mutual harmony and respect, and an honoring of the diversity inherent in all dharmic traditions. It requires an honoring of dharmic pluralism, while affirming common dharmic values and practices.

Yet on this basis of dharmic tolerance, it also requires an enthusiastic effort to share and expand the role of dharma and expand the place of dharmic traditions in the modern world. Dharma remains relevant and essential to all beings in all countries and continents.

This revival of dharma further requires a dharmic critique of adharmic trends in modern cultures and even in Asian countries, governments and educational systems. Dharma needs to regain its critical voice and capacity to educate and promote ethical values. The voice of Dharma needs to be heard again.

In facing these current challenges, Dharmic traditions should not become contracted, defensive, or retreat under the weight of the formidable forces opposing them. We should reclaim the expansive spirit of Dharma and seek to spread the message of Dharma, with all of its many facets, to the entire planet.

Dharmic traditions have much in common with science as an objective pursuit of truth and searching for the foundations of consciousness in the universe. Many of the positive trends in modern culture, with the seeking of greater freedom in life, can be connected with older Dharmic traditions of Asia.

Many people in the world today, including many educated people in the West, are open to the message of dharma and are seeking to go beyond antiquated belief systems that only serve to divide people into warring camps. Dharmic traditions have a new worldwide appeal and spread over the last more than one hundred years and now have followings in every corner of the world. This will undoubtedly continue to grow in the decades to come.

Dharmic traditions should prepare for this global expansion by creating new teachers who can facilitate it, putting dharma in a new idiom of global, scientific and universalistic thought, with relevance to all people and all cultures, yet also preserving the unique approaches and formulations of different dharmic teachings and practices.

Dharmic and related traditions lay at the heart of the great cultures of Asia and are necessary for the cultural revival and cultural integrity of this important region of the world, which holds the world’s largest populations – a region that is slowly emerging out of centuries of foreign domination to a place of centrality in world affairs.

Yet dharmic traditions are also at the forefront of the new spirituality that we see gradually emerging throughout the planet, on every continent, emphasizing yoga, meditation, natural healing, mind-body medicine, and ecological sustainability. All these are important areas of dharmic teaching and dharmic research, and part of a new dharmic renaissance that needs to e fostered.

However, Dharmic traditions cannot be maintained mechanically or passed on as a mere matter of belief and custom. They rest upon education born of dialogue, not of indoctrination that suppresses any questioning. New Dharmic institutions are required both to pass on and to renovate Dharmic traditions. Such dharmic institutions need to encourage original thinking and the development of new insights, not simply carrying on the old formulas, much less inertia of the past. They also need to be open to dialogue, debate and a variety of points of view. A new call for Dharmic education needs to resound throughout the world, and India, the ancient homeland of dharma, is an ideal place for this work to begin.

There are many new possible positive developments for dharmic traditions, which have the creativity and adaptability of life itself. The power of Dharma can lead humanity forward to a new age of oneness, tolerance and peace, and a unity between all peoples, with all nature and the greater conscious universe itself.

We hope that such dharmic gatherings as the one here today, and the development of such new dharmic institutions as those being proposed here, can serve the role to renovate dharma for the world as a whole. It would work a great transformation and alleviate tremendous suffering to restore Dharma everywhere.

A world without dharma cannot be sustainable. Yet only a living and revitalized dharma can sustain the world, resting on truth and a respect for the sacred nature of all life. Let us work together to bring that about. Let us light the flame of dharma within our own hearts, which is both the highest meditation and the highest Vedic ritual.

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